Creating Character: Write the Character to the Plot, or Write the Plot to the Character?

Welcome back to my little series of posts about creating characters. As I muddle my way through NaNoWriMo, I’ve considered often how I go about creating my characters. Much of my planning is internal, meaning I think about characters for a long time before I start outlining a story. Usually I take the major players and list off a few details before I dive into the outline. Some writers plot more intricately than that, while others might not plan anything involving character, allowing them to develop naturally.

I have to say, in my opinion, that it’s really hard to craft memorable characters without some type of thought beforehand. If you plot the story before knowing your characters, how can you know what’s at risk for them? How can you make sure the plot you laid out poses the greatest risks for a particular character? How do you know the character’s goals and motivations? How do you avoid making the character reactionary instead of realistic? It’s impossible to know these things when you’re writing cold. Sure, you can figure them out along the way, but then you risk points in the story where the character behaves in a way that isn’t true to who she is.

If you outline your story first, no matter how much or how little detail you put into it, you’ll have to pause at some point to craft your characters. After doing so, the events of the story will make sense, and you’ll be better able to target the problem areas and fix them. If you pants it, then at some point you’ll still have to pause and do the same thing. Otherwise, you will lack the things that make the characters the only “people” who can tell your tale. And your characters should be the only ones able to tell your tale in such a unique way.

If you create the characters first, on the other hand, you’ll have to adjust the plot to suit them, which is sometimes really frustrating. You’ll have to manipulate events to suit each character, and to ensure that this plot is the only plot that tells their story perfectly.

But guess what—it doesn’t matter when you craft your characters, as long as you take the time to do it. Whatever works for you is what you should do. But consider something before you continue using the methods you’ve used to this point: Is your way of doing shit actually working? To have unforgettable characters, the story elements (character, plot, and setting) must fit and work in perfect harmony, or the story and its players will collapse in a very forgettable heap. Do you find yourself untangling forgettable heaps often?

If your current character-discovery process works and you create fluid, dynamic characters that have no inconsistencies and tell the tale you’ve penned without issue, then keep at it. You’re awesome. You don’t have to worry about anyone behaving in a manner that’s out of character because you KNOW how they’ll react and such. However, if you have problems on rewrite, like readers mentioning a strange reaction or two, or you find yourself switching this character and that around, then your process ain’t so shit-hot.

If this sounds like you, then switch it up a bit. If you craft your characters first, then write the plot around them, reverse your strategy, and if you craft the plot and build characters to suit it, try getting to know the characters first. Changing the way you do things might show you a new method of writing that gives you a story where every element feeds and enhances all the other elements. That’s the goal in the end, right? It’s not about the path you take to get there.

It seems like a lot of work and thought to put into something as simple as a vessel to tell a story, but by doing that work we end up with characters who are no longer fictional, but real, breathing human beings that make to our books unforgettable for those who read them.

Consider how readers react to some of the bestsellers out there today. Let’s use Edward and Bella, for example. Meyer might not have narrative skill or plotting technique that appeals to me, but she created characters that breathed for her readers, even the undead ones. Even if you hated the Twilight books, Edward and Bella stay with you…no matter how much you want to forget them. Readers that loved them do so beyond logical standards. Come on folks, when you get readers sending mail to your characters, you know you’ve succeeded. When fan clubs and discussion groups refer to your characters as real people, you’ve done something right. You’ve crafted an unforgettable character.
Do you write your characters to the plot, or the plot to the characters? How’s that working for you?

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